The Department of Energy announced a pilot program Thursday that could be used to allow businesses to work in partnership with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to bring new technology to the market.
Now that work is allowed under a use permit program that has been in place since 1965 when Battelle began to operate and manage what is now a DOE national laboratory.
It was intended to allow private research to be conducted alongside government research and to encourage the Richland lab's contractor to make an investment in building facilities and purchasing equipment beyond what the federal government would invest.
For decades, it allowed Battelle to partner with industry and served as a vehicle to push research and technology to the marketplace.
But three years ago, the use permit was in danger of being eliminated and is set to expire at the end of September. Talks have been under way to develop a new mechanism to allow PNNL and other national labs to work with industry.
On Thursday, deputy energy secretary Daniel Poneman announced the new Agreements for Commercializing Technology, or ACT, program that would be used nationwide, if a pilot program is successful.
"To compete in the 21st (century) global economy, we need to make it easier for businesses to move great ideas from the drawing board to the marketplace," he said at the Council on Competitiveness' 25th Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C.
"The Agreements for Commercializing Technology will cut red tape for businesses and start-ups interested in working with our nation's crown jewels of innovation, the national laboratories, and strengthen new domestic industries by helping bring innovative, job-creating technologies to the market faster," he said.
ACT has some of the same philosophies of the PNNL use permit, but will be more straightforward in eliminating barriers between researchers and industry, said Roger Snyder, manager of the DOE Pacific Northwest Site Office in Richland.
The Tri-City Development Council had advocated for the use permit system, which it believed had been successful at PNNL, to be expanded nationwide.
"The use permit was proven over a long period of time," said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of Hanford programs.
He and TRIDEC chief executive Carl Adrian said they were concerned that ACT apparently had not been vetted with industry, making its impact on businesses and the Tri-City community unknown.
"My priority has been ensuring that PNNL and new job creation in the Tri-Cities are not diminished by DOE eliminating the use permit," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., in a statement.
Hastings said he stopped the Bush administration from eliminating the use permit program, which created jobs from PNNL research.
"I will be asking questions to ensure this new arrangement equally benefits our world class lab and community," Hastings said.
The ACT pilot project will help determine what works and make sure it streamlines work with industry as intended as the program is in its early stages, Snyder said.
"We believe it will allow us to continue work with industry as we have been," said PNNL director Mike Kluse. "We're pretty positive."
PNNL expects a smooth transition with work still performed under use permits next fall being transferred over to ACT.
The real value of ACT may be in the energy industry, where 90 to 95 percent of the energy infrastructure is owned by the commercial sector, Kluse said. That means the science and technology related to energy at the lab needs to be deployed into the commercial sector, he said.
ACT is expected to provide specific terms for PNNL to work with industry to develop, deploy and scale up new energy technology, Kluse said.
"We have tried to make it easier for businesses to work with the laboratories under terms that align better with industry best practices," Poneman said. "We are confident that by providing more options to help labs and industry align their interests and needs, we will encourage new partnerships and stimulate innovation."